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The Black Obelisk

September 6, 2018

 

Introduction

 

During his excavations at biblical Calah (Genesis 10:11; Neo-Assyrian Nimrud) in 1846, Henry Austen Layard discovered an extensively inscribed four-sided stone obelisk.  The black basalt monument featured five rows of bas-relief panels on each side depicting vassals offering tribute to Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC; Grayson 1996: 5-180).  The second panel located on the front side of the monument depicts a bearded vassal king with a cap bowing low before Shalmaneser offering tribute. The inscription identifies this vassal as Jehu, son of Omri (of the Omride dynasty of Israel).  The location where this meeting between Jehu and Shalmaneser took place was at Mount Carmel, a promontory often visited by invading armies. The date is 841 BC, just after Jehu’s rebellion against the Omride dynasty and his slaughter of the entire royal house and their attendants (2 Kings 9-10), but Assyrian annalists mistakenly identified Jehu as one of the Omrides, apparently ignorant of Jehu’s bloody eradication of this royal family.  The original obelisk is now in the British Museum.

 

Relevance to the Biblical Account

 

Ironically, the Old Testament does not specifically mention Jehu giving tribute to Shalmaneser III, but does provide the historical background.  Renewed pressure from Israel’s enemy, Aram-Damascus, probably forced Jehu to approach the Assyrian king as a vassal requesting assistance.  Uncertainty exists regarding whether the inscription refers to Jehu or his predecessor Jehoash (McCarter 1974), but most scholars identify the name as Jehu, although chronologically either one is possible (Thiele 1976).   Hosea (10:14) probably mentions to Shalmaneser III when he reminds his audience that: “Shalman devastated Beth Arbel (a city across the Jordan in Gilead) on the day of battle, when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children.” Moreover, the figure depicted on the relief bowing before Shalmaneser III may be an Israelite envoy or representative of Jehu and not Jehu himself.  Nevertheless, the weight of probability strongly favors Jehu.  The Black Obelisk is one of the truly amazing archaeological discoveries that not only corroborates the biblical narrative, but provides supplementary historical information as well as an actual portrait of an Israelite king.

The Horn Museum displays one of the few replicas of the Black Obelisk, which the British Museum specially commissioned.

 

Physical Description

 

The rectangular Black Obelisk is 6 ½ feet high monument crowned with a three stepped ziggurat shaped top. An inscription over each row of panels identifies the various vassals and tribute offered to the king.  Additional writing covers the top and the base of the obelisk.  The annalistic text of the obelisk dates to ca. 828-27 BC and highlights the expansive extent of Assyria during Shalmaneser III’s reign (Younger 2003: 269).

 

Historical Significance

 

Any inscribed monumental stele dating from the biblical period possesses tremendous historical significance and the Black Obelisk certainly qualifies as one of the premier examples of a royal inscription that confirms biblical history and sheds new light on the historical circumstances of a reigning Israelite king. Interestingly, an additional stele from Shalmaneser III’s reign, found at Kurkh in Turkey in 1861, describes a great battle between Assyria and a coalition of Levantine state led by Ahab of Israel, who fielded a remarkably large force of 2,000 chariots and 10,000 foot soldiers.  Shalmaneser III claimed victory, but a careful analysis of the evidence suggests the battle ended as a draw or perhaps even as an Assyrian defeat.  Despite the enormous geo-political significance of the event, the biblical narrative (1 Kings 22:1) only mentions that peace existed between Israel and Aram-Damascus for three years (in order to face a much larger common threat).

 

Parallels

 

While iconographic images of Assyrian rulers are well attested, possible depictions of Israelite kings are exceptionally rare.  Excavations at a royal compound near Jerusalem at Ramat Rahel unearthed a painted sherd depicting a bearded royal figure seated on a throne (e.g., Geva 1981). Since the site served as a summer palace for Judah’s kings, some scholars have speculated that this image may represent a king of Judah; perhaps Uzziah (2 Kings 15:5; 2 Chronicles 26:21), Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:27-29) or Jehoiachim (Jeremiah 22:13-14).  Another seated figure, portrayed on a wall painting at the ninth-eighth century BC site at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the Sinai border, may also represent an Israelite king (Beck 2012: 189-92).

 

Bibliography

 

Beck, P.

2012    The Drawings and Decorative Designs.  Pp. 143-203 in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (Ḥorvat                            Teman):  An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border,by Z.                                          Meshel. Jerusalem:  Israel Exploration Society.

 

Geva, S.

            1981    The Painted Sherd of Ramat Raḥel.  Israel Exploration Journal31: 186-89.

 

Grayson, A. K.

1996    Assyrian Rulers of the Early First Millennium BC II (858-745 BC).  The Royal                                Inscriptions of Mesopotamia 2. Toronto:  University of Toronto.

 

McCarter, P. K.

1974    “Yaw, Son of ‘Omri”:  A Philological Note on Israelite Chronology.  Bulletin of the                           American Schools of Oriental Research216: 5-7.

 

Thiele, E. R.

1976    An Additional Chronological Note on “Yaw, Son of ‘Omri.” Bulletin of the American                      Schools of Oriental Research222: 19-23.

 

Younger, K. L.

2003    Black Obelisk.  Pp. 269-70 in Volume 2 of The Context of Scripture:  Monumental                      Inscriptions from the Biblical World,eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger. Leiden:  Brill.

 

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